Brilliant 10: Maurizio Porfiri, the Water Wizard

His research could lead to self-powered underwater vehicles that lead sea creatures away from manmade hazards

by Susannah F. Locke 

Editor's note: This article appears in a Popular Science feature naming Porfiri one of this year's "Brilliant 10" — an elite group of scientists under age 40 whose work stands to dramatically impact their fields.

What does an engineer do when he needs insight? “I don’t think,” says Maurizio Porfiri. “I watch an insane amount of movies.” He also tends to his tomatoes, listens to the Cure, and devours science-fiction novels. That’s not to say he’s a slacker. He works across several fields to build underwater devices and puts in 12-hour days at the lab, but his best thoughts happen while relaxing.

Consider his idea for biologically inspired robots that might influence real animals. “If we borrow design from nature to build our robots, why not use the robots to modify nature?” says Porfiri, an assistant professor at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. “Can we close the circle?” Maybe a robot fish could guide real fish away from power turbines or oil spills. Previous biology research suggests that fish follow one another by feeling the turbulence given off by other fish, so Porfiri designed his robot to move its tail in a fishlike way. An electric current from a battery makes a polymer in the tail expand and contract like muscles, creating an eerily natural-looking and silent movement. This spring, he did the first study of a biomimetic robot with real lab fish, which followed it about 25 percent of the time.

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